(June 8, 2016 / JNS) It’s not really a question of “how” Jason Greenblatt, the real estate transactions lawyer and son of Hungarian-Jewish immigrants who grew up in New York City’s Queens borough, became a presidential candidate’s adviser on issues related to Israel. For him, it’s more a question of “what”—what will he do with the immense opportunity he has been given?
Greenblatt—a Teaneck, N.J., resident who in April was named as a primary Israel adviser to presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump—spoke to The Jewish Link and JNS.orgin a jointly published interview about the honor he carries with him in his role each day.
“That phrase, of being a ‘light unto the nations,’ is in my mind every single day, it’s part of the responsibility I feel every morning when I get into the car and drive to work. I run that theme through my mind, to make sure I adhere to that principle,” he said.
In spite of the fact that many Washington, DC-based political action committees cloak big-donor fundraisers as “advocacy events,” the part that individuals have played in the realm of true Israel advocacy cannot be discounted. Profound, history-altering roles have contributed to Israel’s very establishment and continued vibrancy by Jewish ad hoc presidential advisers—most notably Eddie Jacobson, who parlayed U.S. president Harry Truman into meeting with future Israeli president Chaim Weizmann, at the point when only a provisional government had been formed in Israel, before it was recognized by any other nation. At this past year’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, a six-minute presentation on Jacobson by Robert A. Cohen, AIPAC’s chairman of the board, might have gone unnoticed; after all, there were a number of presentations this year that took over the 24-hour news cycle. Between speeches from Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Paul Ryan, and yes, even Donald Trump, it might have been reasonable to take a break during the video presentation on Jacobson. But was it actually the most prescient presentation of the policy conference?
Jacobson had been army buddies, business partners, and Kansas City compatriots with Truman for decades, when Weizmann came to Washington in an effort to gain America’s recognition of the Jewish state. It was Jacobson who hopped on a plane after a middle-of-the-night phone call, walked into the president’s office, and convinced Truman to agree to speak to Weizmann after America’s organized Jewish communal organizations had failed in their efforts. America’s subsequent recognition of Israel was a cornerstone of its founding.
“You never know who is going to be the next Eddie Jacobson.You never know who’s going to be the next Mr. Greenblatt,” said Dr. Ben Chouake, national president of NORPAC, a New Jersey-based pro-Israel lobbying and advocacy group that counts Greenblatt as a member.
“Sometimes you are in the right place at the right time and it makes all the difference in the world. Our job is to use the great resources and great forum that have been given to us,” he said.
While a key portion of NORPAC’s mission is to organize and use funding groups that work directly to interface with and contribute directly to congressional campaigns, what Chouake believes has the most influence is the training of people like Greenblatt and others who not only advocate for Israel in Congress, but are also knowledgeable enough about the issues to represent Israel in their workplace, in local politics, or in the community at large. As such, NORPAC brings hundreds of people to Washington annually to advocate for Israel on what Chouake called a “grassroots level.” Greenblatt attended a few of these types of events when he was in college, and he feels they are essential.
“You troop along, you meet the congressman. I think they are very effective if you meet the right people, if you or the people in the room with you are good advocates. I encouraged my kids to do it,” he said.
Greenblatt added that last summer, he took his children to an advocacy program in Israel run through StandWithUs, during one of literally dozens of trips Greenblatt has made to Israel since his first visit at age 16.
“I think it’s important to train them young, and I wasn’t trained young. They have to know that if they don’t advocate for Israel, where is it going to be? There’s just too much hate against Israel today,” he said.
Greenblatt conveyed his awareness that his influence may or may not have the power to alter the course of history. He jokingly placed himself on a type of second tier, noting that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka Trump are the candidate’s primary Jewish voices for Israel. Yet the American presidency’s significance for Israel is so great, he said, that he has been told his role could be as important as Esther—the Jewish queen of Persia.
“We have made tremendous efforts to encourage our children to pursue leadership roles and to seize opportunities when offered,” said Greenblatt’s wife, psychiatrist Dr. Naomi Greenblatt. “This tremendous appointment offered to my husband puts everything we have tried to teach them into modeling for real life. My husband’s commitment to advocate and advise on behalf of the State of Israel in this role is inspiring, as is the achdut (unity) that we have witnessed from the community at large.”
Jason Greenblatt said his lack of formal policy expertise mirrors that of Trump, and that in some ways, it’s part of their plan for success in Washington.
“I don’t mind if you say I haven’t been a policy expert over my lifetime. That’s true. But that doesn’t mean I can’t do a great job or pull together a team, so we have the right group of people, the right minds, to give Donald all the advice he needs. He’s the guy who is going to take all this input, from experts and non-experts alike, and propose things that hopefully will work,” he said.
“That’s the beauty of how Donald thinks. Sure, we could hire a bunch of experts and I am not diminishing the role of experts. There are great experts and less-than-great experts. But, I mean, where are we today? Is Israel any better off? Is there peace? Is there a deal with Gaza, that helped us? Lots of experts have been involved, and, no disrespect to them, but we don’t yet have peace,” said Greenblatt, adding that he is “not saying I will do better than them (the Washington establishment,” but that “you get to the right result when you don’t only include experts.”
Greenblatt also shared his perspective as the Jewish adviser who was figuratively standing next to Trump the day after Trump addressed the AIPAC conference, when Lillian Pinkus, AIPAC’s president, condemned his speech in strong and even tearful terms. She was referring to one word Trump uttered—“yay”—after the GOP candidate noted that this was President Barack Obama’s last year in office. She doubly condemned the audience’s 30 seconds of applause that followed Trump’s statement. “We are disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with or condone,” Pinkus said.
While he doesn’t think Trump is likely to hold a grudge when there is a serious topic such as Israel on the table, Greenblatt felt that AIPAC made a serious error in judgment.
“It was wrong of AIPAC to do that. I would not have made that decision if I were them,” he said.
Greenblatt qualified his comments by noting that the Republican nomination was, in March, still very much up in the air.
“When they issued the apology, you remember, there were a lot of other candidates on the stage. And then, very quickly, he won. I am not sure they anticipated that. But it’s a question they should have asked themselves,” said Greenblatt.
Trump’s experience as a strong negotiator, according to Greenblatt, is a key to the candidate’s game plan on Israel and shouldn’t be discounted.
“What we do for a living is work out transactions,” said Greenblatt said, who has worked with Trump for two decades. “You need negotiating skills, you need to listen to the other side, you have to try to piece together everything to try to address as many issues as you can, with both sides satisfied that a fair and appropriate deal has been struck. Not everyone is happy all the time. I am not diminishing the concept of a peace deal or a U.S.-Israel relationship—they are complicated and there are lots of layers, but people like Donald, who are skilled negotiators, and people on his team who have worked on transactions large and small over the course of their careers, are well-suited to these things.”
“I am not going to say that someone who has policy experience isn’t good,” he added. “That would be silly. But similarly, they should not be saying that people like Donald, who have no Washington experience, aren’t good, because I think Donald would be phenomenal. He’s pragmatic, he thinks outside the box, he sees how Washington is broken, and this could apply to Israeli-Palestinian relationships.”
Greenblatt said that ultimately, he feels lucky to be able to play whatever role he is destined to play in politics.
“Whatever Hashem has destined for me, whether small or large, I feel very fortunate to be in this position,” he said. “I hope I do a good job. And I will seek out advice from lots of people as I have been doing over the past months. Really, they’ve been coming to me for the moment, but I will keep looking and seeking.”
Elizabeth Kratz is associate publisher and editor of The Jewish Link of New Jersey and The Jewish Link of Bronx, Westchester and Connecticut.